Tag Archives: short stories

A Plenty

Snowdie grieved for him, but the decent way you’d grieve for the dead, more like, and nobody wanted to think, around her, that he treated her that way. But how long can you humor the humored? Well, always.
—Eudora Welty, “Showers of Gold” (1)

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Tuesday I was standing in a packed NYC subway in alarmingly close intimacy with my fellow passengers, amazed at how well bodies fit into one another, reading a story about being in the woods (where I had been on Monday). I wrote of it to a friend of mine and he re-set my words into verse:

Subway
I was pressed up so tight against his backside
I only had to whisper in his ear,
“I am sorry, I am being pushed.”
But still I held my book above the fray
So that I could continue the story.

And what was this story that had me so enthralled with poetic devotion? A book of short stories, Golden Apples by Eudora Welty. The first story “Shower of Gold” is told with disarming charm by Miss Katie. I loved her no-nonsense ingenuousness. She told the story of Snowdie MacLain, an albino woman, whose husband would come and go without so much as a by your leave. Sometimes when he would come he’d let her know:

“Meet me in the woods.” No, he more invited her than told her to come–“Suppose you meet me in the woods.” And it was night time he supposed to her.  And Snowdie met him without asking “What for?” (4)

I guess I admire Miss Katie–she wants to know why. When her husband tells her he thinks that he saw the absconder husband, King MacLain, at a county parade she can’t believe he didn’t confirm much less confront him:

Men! I said if I’d been Governor Vardaman and spied King Maclain from Morgana marching in my parade as big as I was and no call for it, I’d have had the whole thing brought to a halt and called him to accounts. “Well, what good would it have done you?” my husband said. “A plenty,” I said.

yet, I think I understand Snowdie better. Welty enchants words, she’ll have you laughing out loud in a hot crowded subway, and then leave you a little lost on the platform of her phrasing musing over the devastating disappointments we endure. Some, like Snowdie, just take them quietly. I thought, after discussing the title of the story with another friend, that perhaps Ms. Welty, as fun and sharp as she made Miss Katie, saw things Snowdie’s way. That shower of gold was Snowdie’s news that she was expecting twins. Maybe she didn’t think she deserved more than a shower. Her husband just disappeared with no word or explanation and maybe she just took that as proof that she was just going to get what precipitation she did.  What good would it have done her to complain?

Each story in the book stands alone, and yet they are all set in the same fictional town, the same characters, the same disturbing inability to “know how to do about” as is Welty’s refrain in the story “June Recital.”

That’s the frightening thing. We are all trying so hard, but what if we just plum don’t know how to do about? I don’t mean algebra, or gardening, or spelling. I mean to say, when we don’t connect to one another when we, like Miss Eckhart, flail and fail in something so essential as love. When one looks into their own heart and has to admit–I don’t know how to do about you at all.

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them–human beings, roaming like lost beasts (“June Recital” 85).

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Bathing in Language

I am Comrade Korotkov, V.P., from whom the documents were just stolen…Every last one…I could be arrested…”
“Very simply too,” the man on the porch affirmed.
“So let me…”
“Have Korotkov come personally.”
“But I am Korotkov, comrade.”
“Give me your identification papers.”  (20) 
Mikhail Bulgakov, Diaboliad

rooster.j.ryanI read a book of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov (Diaboliad and Other Stories) this weekend, intermittently taking breaks to read another book, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In fact, just as the child learns to know himself through others, he learns to know others through himself; he also learns to speak because the surrounding language calls up his thought, because he is enticed by its style until a single meaning emerges from the whole” (51, Merleau-Ponty)

Language calls up thought…the two (language and thought)are distinct…if one considers Bulgakov’s Diaboliad within that distinction, his use of satire, indeed satire generally, becomes a thing of great substance. His language is calling, what thoughts emerge? Perhaps it is only because I was (more or less) simultaneously reading a book about language that  I was lead to consider, more deeply, the ‘language of satire.’ But once I did, it seemed to me the first order of business was to consider the translating of such a genre. I find the myopic world of English-speaking literature annoying, (please indulge me while I get this little rant out of the way) translations* into English are far less frequent than the reverse, and that bothers. How better can one experience different cultures, worlds, and times than through literature? I’m sure I don’t know, but the insularity of the English literary world is problematic not  to mention emblematic.

The most characteristic of a word is “what the others are not.” Signification exists not for a word but for all words in relation to one another. Our present tense could never be the same as the present tense of a language without a future tense. It is for this reason that one can never exactly translate from one language to another (99, Merleau-Ponty).

Translation is a fascinating project, and satire is an entirely different order of complexity. As Merleau-Ponty elucidates, translation is in some regards, impossible. Language is more than a grouping of words. Every word is connected to a web of other words and the ability to see that web, to be conscious of the layers and interconnectedness is particularly essential in satire.

A very fat and pink man met Korotkov with the words, “Just marvelous. I’m putting you under arrest.”
“I cannot be arrested,” replied Korotkov–and he laughed a Satanic laughter, “because I am no one knows who. Of course. I cannot be arrested or married” (40, Bulgakov).

Fortunately for Bulgakov the horrors of bureaucracies are keenly understood by most. The entire tale revolves around Korotkov’s loss of his ‘papers’ but the sickenly bizarre frustrations of state agencies are not lost. It is the particular: the play of names, the references to the Soviet state idiosyncrasies, the absurdity interlaced with cultural artifacts and references of the day  that make the ride, in translation, less smooth than the original language required. The totality of the web of language is difficult to fully see and feel by a translation. Still, I am not dissuaded.

As far as the imitation of speech is concerned, one finds himself in possession of a double kinesthetic gift which is lacking in the imitation of gestures (36, Merleau-Ponty).

I think that what Merleau-Ponty is referring to is the phenomenological truth that in regard to the senses, language, which one speaks and hears with the ‘other’ to which the language is directed, is unique among our experience in the world. If I wave my arms, I can never see myself doing it as you do, but if I speak to you, we experience the language together without a marked difference of perspective.

There is no radical difference  between consciousness of self and consciousness of other people (46, Merleau-Ponty).

There seems to be, to Merleau-Ponty,  a circular wrapping around of the concept of ‘egocentric.’ A child is so entirely egocentric that there is actually no separation between herself and the other. For me, it is a reminder of the basic neutrality of individual words to consider what is thought of as an ugly and maligned concept such as ‘egocentric’ in a different way. There is a unity with others in the egocentric inception of our being; what is unity but a melting into our centers, in which the center is everywhere. Language unites, but it also, in fact, is what ultimately separates us. Once a child integrates the rhythm of their native environment, the pronouns, and prepositions…the lacunary nature of existence is delineated. There are spaces between us after all.

This meditation of the objective and of the subjective, of the interior and of the exterior–what philosophy seeks to do–we can find in language if we succeed in getting close enough to it (102, Merleau-Ponty).

Bulgakov buries a world of pain in the language of the absurd, but because language is more than a grouping of words, more than a mode of communication, it doesn’t matter so much that I don’t know that a green felt covered desk is shorthand for ‘institution’ – I’ve spent enough hours at the DMV to know that a Gogol-esque moment of a nose running across the tiled floor is entirely possible. The original state of our unity is the subtext, it is the baseline of sanity by which satire is possible.

A momentary enlarging of his own life: it consists of living for a moment in other people, and not only living the same thing as others for his own benefit (39, Merleau-Ponty).

Language, and by extension literature, is just that- a momentary enlarging of our own lives. Just as an infant begins with the ability to articulate every sound possible in any language, she also begins in a state of complete union to others. However, through the maturation of our individuality,  the sense of shared consciousness can wither away.

According to Delacroix, “the child bathes in language.” He is attracted and enthralled by the movement of dialogue around him, and tries it himself (12, Merleau-Ponty).

Our consciousness is made through language. As many people have figured out, control of language becomes control of thought. Bulgakov and others took subversive hold of their language through satire thereby holding the line on sanity. That what separates us is every bit what unites us is a beautiful paradox. As David Foster Wallace famously said – this is water. We bathe in it. In this mad world it is through language that we will all float.

*Speaking of translations – Diaboliad and Other Stories was translated by Carl R. Poffer, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language was translated by Hugh J. Silverman.

Orpiment Glow

They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives for just a minute while they talked round her (111).
Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill

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How to break a heart in under five pages. Katherine Mansfield’s story Miss Brill from the Penguin Classic collection, Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and Other Stories, is the perfect example of the art and power of the short story. A common mood of repressed loneliness runs through all of her stories but it was Miss Brill that drew my breath away with the final period.

Mansfield’s stories are terribly English: wit, eccentricities, repressions, all interlaced with lusciously  wrought bucolic glory.

How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody ever followed Constantina and her (69). – The Daughters of the Late Colonel.

Just in case one was ever curious as to how the phenomenon of the quintessentially Anglo eccentric-sister-team of spinsters came to be, read no further than The Daughters of the Late Colonel. Somewhat poignant, the story is an amusing exploration of the insular and skewing effects of duty induced repression and pathologically refined manners.

‘I had an extraordinary dream last night!’ he shouted.
What was the matter with the man? This mania for conversation irritated Stanley beyond words. And it was always the same – always some piffle about a dream he’d had, or some cranky idea he’d got hold of, or some rot he’d been reading (8). The Garden Party

Taken a more indepth view, The Garden Party is fascinating in the way that whole groups of people orbit separately in the same family sphere. Where a repressive spirit reigns, it is engrossing to see how individuals adapt and cope.

‘I suppose,’ she said vaguely, ‘one gets used to it. One gets used to anything.’
‘Does one? Hum!’ The ‘Hum’ was so deep it seemed to boom from underneath the ground. ‘I wonder how it’s done,’ brooded Jonathan; ‘I’ve never managed it’ (30).

Jonathan (the prolific dreamer and loquacious annoyance to Stanley) is the rare Mansfield character that can not fully adapt to societal expectations, his inability is really what’s at the heart of Stanley’s irritation. After all, it’s not as if Stanley enjoys the daily asphyxiation of ‘work.’ But of course Stanley has a wife that he adores, and Love is a detail that makes life worth living.

Even still, we all have access to the resplendence of life. Whether it be the exuberant beauty of nature, or a moment of profound reverence. Life affirms itself, and casts an orpiment glow in an instance of a brilliant sky, a sweet kiss, or the profound sumptuousness of a perfect peach.

Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said in his warm, loving voice. ‘Was it awful?’
‘No,’ sobbed Laura. ‘It was simply marvellous. But Laurie -‘ She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life -‘ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie (51).

 

 

Harmony and Melody

Where was he from? And where should he go, and did he have to go any farther? And what was life, this pulse, this breathing, this waiting, what was this ecstasy, this grief, this war? He was so weak, but he had a powerful harmony in his heart, a melody in his head” (25) – Nina Berberova, The Resurrection of Mozart.

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The Tattered Cloak and Other Stories by Nina Berberova is exhibit A in my perpetual side note defense of libraries. Her books happen to lay on the shelf above the Bulgakov I had sought out. In all honesty it was another title of hers that first caught my eye, The Book of Happiness. I can’t quite say why I chose this one instead…perhaps it stems from my status as an unbeliever, but now that I have read her stories I feel confident that she and I have some congress. Still, one must roam. One must have the opportunity to bump into books. We are all far too limited, left to our own insular and circular devices. What will become of fate?

“I don’t smoke and I don’t philosophize,” said Astashev (125, Astashev in Paris)

Fine with the smoking but, As Mallarmé wrote, let’s think it over…Berberova’s character’s are a hurting shell shocked bunch, their lives are one blow after another – philosophy is hardly possible in a state of shock, and difficult in a state of poverty, but seems, to me, essential. In these stories, as cynical and inured to fate a person may seem, there is no end to the stupefaction of the dischord. I think we all know it’s not suppose to be like this.

But I wasn’t going to hug her anymore, and I wasn’t going to cry with her. That night I had hardened, and I even experienced a certain satisfaction from feeling harder (177, The Tattered Cloak).

Written in the 30’s and 40’s Berberova’s stories are primarily about Russian emigres in Paris. The one-two whammy of the world wars is described with a cool distance: a disjointed, moorless, disconnect. It is heart wrenching- the true result of war – death: for the dead and living alike. I already would have taken some convincing to believe that anyone could raise the bar for the  Russian Department of Despair- given their exposure, but holy smokes, Nina!

I would drag Tolstoy back into God’s world. Wasn’t it you, dear sir, who denied the role of the individual in history? You who declared that there would be no more wars? And wasn’t it you who took a skeptical view of vaccinations? No, don’t try to wriggle out of it now. Just have a look at the results” (6, The Resurrection of Mozart).

I will confess that I would have most likely put this book aside had I been without another (I have a high tolerance for pain, but I am truly on a campaign to change my errant ways, I swear). There was a glimmer in Astashev in Paris, but that was, apparently,  just my relentless seemingly innate groping hope rearing its head. Needless to say, Berberova slapped that bitch down.

“You’ve got a lot to learn, Zhenechka. I suggest you start taking instruction from me” (141, Astashev in Paris).

I really wanted this one to end well….I think that is the point – isn’t it all suppose to end well? How does it happen that it doesn’t? There is something un-credible about the human ability to manufacture its own pain and suffering so relentlessly.  No child would believe it. Some call it innocence, but I feel there is that bud of love in our cores that wants to grow, must grow, and the perversity of a world which stunts that urge is appalling and unbelievable.

She had everything I hold dear in this solar system, all the rest was Neptune and Pluto (271, The Black Spot).

It was Berberova’s story The Black Spot that will stay with me always. By the time I got to it, I was fully Russian in spirit if not actuality. Far away, almost like a dream, the narrator’s voice called…yes, she said: this is the story, this is reality, but… but I tell the tale for a reason, I give you, Reader, these dead hearts so that you will know there is another way. As bleak as it is, as crushing as poverty and the stupidity of war is, we all want the same thing. Yes. We do. Fate will write the score, but we are not wrong to expect harmony and melody from each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Song of a Tree

Amabel saw that she would never attract a man again; she would never be loved, for she had not held even the Colonel’s attention (61) 
-Mavis Gallant, New Year’s Eve from Varieties of Exile

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Varieties of Exile is a collection of short stories by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant published in 2003. The stories are told with a perfection of tone. Each protagonist is an isolated voice above the score; Gallant has the ear of a soloist.

 Mrs. Plummer suddenly said clearly to herself or to Amabel, “My mother used to make her children sing. If you sing, you must be happy. That was another idea of happiness” (62).

All of the stories are wonderful, terse and moving, exemplifying the power of the short story. But New Year’s Eve slayed me. It is simply told but deeply discordant. Colonel and Mrs. Plummer, currently residing in Russia, agree to have Amabel, their deceased daughter’s school chum, come to visit over the holiday. Amabel, recently divorced, on a stabbing whim, imagines, hopes, fantasizes that the Plummer’s will take her into their fold and sooth her lonely soul.

They stared at each other, as if they were strangers in a crush somewhere and her earring had caught on his coat. Their looks disentangled (56).

The story transpires over an evening spent at the opera. Amabel, having cut herself free from a desolate marriage is deafened by her now untethered heart; she’s incapable of hearing the contrapuntal recrimination and hostility throbbing between the Plummer’s. She throws herself onto their mercy and they barely notice. Amabel’s lonely awkwardness is wretchedly evinced by Gallant. Her reckless hope that the Plummers will love her is confused by the mutual and in some ways merciful inability to really communicate.

Tears stood in Amabel’s eyes and she had to hold her head as stiffly as Mrs. Plummer did; otherwise the tears might have spilled on her program and thousands of people would have heard them fall. Later, the Plummers would drop her at her hotel, which could have been in Toronto, in Caracas, or Amsterdam; where there was no one to talk to, and she was not loved (61).

A fugue without harmony, Gallant passes the narration around and around, with a slight tragicomic touch. Amabel, rootless, doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, her human desire to connect is so overwhelming, she can’t hear that the Plummers are reading off an entirely different score. Only the sound of loneliness reverberates. And the song is stuck in my head.

When [Amabel] hinted at her troubles, said something about a wasted life, Mrs. Plummer cut her off with, “Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic” (58).

 

Bon à Rien

The girl was not too deeply in love with Hector; but imagination counts for something (75, In and Out of Old Natchitoches
-Kate Chopin, Bayou Folk

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Kate Chopin’s collection of short stories, Bayou Folk is comprised of some 23 stories most of which take place, as the title suggests, amongst the Bayou folk: the Creole people in and about New Orleans. She writes about her topic of choice- men and women aching for love under the limiting constraints (for both sexes) of living in a man’s world. In Sabine confronts a woman’s happiness cruelly destroyed by her marriage to one man, and then saved by another:

He was wondering if it would really be a criminal act to go then and there and shoot the top of Bud Aiken’s head off. He himself would hardly have considered it a crime, but he was not sure of how others might regard the act (88, In Sabine)

But hardly any of her characters are ever autonomous enough to enjoy the freedom to love without regard to anything but one’s own insisting heart- and what is remarkable about Chopin’s writing in the late 19th century is her particularly keen voice describing the devastating effects this has on the subordinate woman of her age.

But he was not jesting. She saw it at once in the glance that penetrated her own; in the quiver of his sensitive lip and the quick beating of a swollen vein in his brown throat […] She had suddenly become a woman capable of love or sacrifice (307, A Lady of Bayou St. John).

The stories that make up Bayou Folk all touch on the poignancy of love and heartbreak but none are near the level of Chopin’s masterpiece, The Awakening – that book simply slays.

She’s a vrai sauvage, that’s w’at (186, Loka).

Nevertheless, the delightful vernacular of the characters populating these stories, the vibrancy of the people and landscape, taken together with Chopin’s supreme talent for articulating what if feels like to fall in love, or to be heartbroken, or just plain broken, is unique and lovely.

If she had hung for hours upon his neck telling him that she loved him, he could not have known it more surely than by this sign. Azenor felt as if some mysterious bond had all at once drawn them heart to heart and made them one. (191, Love on the Bon-Dieu)

Love that crosses the boundaries of what is euphemistically called “polite society” is at the heart of Chopin’s work. “Polite society” is a cruel, racist, sexist, classist, disingenuous master and Chopin was never afraid to politely, of course,  point that out.

Eschew Surplusage

IMG_1153Rule number 14. Eschew Surplages. This comes, as is natural, after rule number 13. Use the right word, not its second cousin. The man is droll. Mark Twain’s essay Fenimore Copper’s Literary Offenses, found in A Subtreasury of American Humor outlines eighteen of the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction- some say twenty-two” (519) of which he claims Cooper’s Deerslayer egregiously violates.

3. They require that the personage in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale (520 Twain).

Possibly one of the funniest scathing reviews I have ever read. And I say that as someone who liked the Deerslayer, in fact I read the whole series (many years ago) back to back. However, it is not as if Twain’s criticism doesn’t ring true – that’s what makes his ribbing so hilarious.

A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccaisined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick (521 Twain).

That Cooper gets the details wrong or does not attach himself to working out the engineering or logistical problems of his tales with any fidelity to logic drives Twain a bit nuts.

The difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it (525 Twain).

I find myself drawn to humor writing this time of year. A semi-conscious attempt to thwart the faux-holiday cheer that does nothing but strengthen my cynical heart, crowding out that other kind of heart one wants to foster. No, better that I search for some genuine joy.  That is how I have found myself reading  A Sub-Treasury of American Humor  edited by E.B. and Katherine White. I made the near fatal error of starting with Dorothy Parker’s Glory in the Daytime– she is funny in a “Oh Christ, get me a cocktail to laugh my sorrows into” kind of way, and not really what I was going for. But, I couldn’t help myself, Miss Parker or, as I like to call her- Our Lady of Cynical Hearts, holds an abiding appeal as my patron saint…

Miss Noyes was full of depths and mystery, and she could talk with a cigarette still between her lips. She was always doing something difficult, like designing her own pajamas, or reading Proust, or modeling torsos in plasticine (75 Parker).

Let’s not even talk about how the story ends.

Mark Twain, in the Critic At Work section of the book is the sort of writing that will cause one to break out into laughter all day long as his barbs circulate through the brain.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no life-likeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality […] its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are – oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that (530 Twain).

The Whites have compiled nearly 800 pages of humorous diversions. Hallelujah. I’m ready to face December.